Learning another language

What have you found to be the best, easiest or most efficient way or simply a sufficient way to learn a foreign language? Language tapes? iPod? Book? Online learning guide? Total-immersion course overseas? We asked you to write in with whatever advice or info you could provide, including details such as titles, sources, contact info and prices and also telling us how well you did communicating overseas and when that was. Following are responses we received.

If you would like to share your experiences, write to Learning A Language, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail editor@intltravelnews.com (please include the address at which you receive ITN).

I have spent the last four winters going to Spanish-speaking countries in hopes of learning enough Spanish to have some simple conversations as well as to take care of my basic travel needs (taxis, trains, buses, room and meals).

Time to be honest here. I did not start on this “immersion” project until I turned 60. After years of listening to tapes and CDs and trying computer programs and even some basic Spanish classes, I realized that I needed more.

Just as every person’s learning style is different, people’s reasons for learning a new language differ. Some are learning for work or moving to a new country or going into the Peace Corp or doing volunteer work with a Spanish-speaking population. I had no such motivation. I just did not want to be a functional illiterate any longer when I traveled to a Spanish-speaking country.

I found a wonderful company which, despite its name, Amerispan Study Abroad (117 South 17th St., Ste. 1401, Philadelphia, PA 19103; 800/879-6640 or 215/751-1100, www.amerispan.com), offers many different languages in a host of countries for incredibly reasonable rates.

You can opt for a homestay (which usually includes two or three meals) or an apartment or even a room in a small hotel. You can have group or private lessons. One of Amerispan’s best features is that you are covered by health insurance for the time you are in the program AND for six months after you finish. So if you choose to stay longer or do more traveling, you are still covered. This is included in the $100 registration fee. They handle all the paperwork.

Each place I have been with Amerispan has been very different. Some schools are great and others, so-so, but each was a great learning experience. Some schools are very large and you may have as many as 10 in a class, while in others you may be the only student. You will find out what is best for you. The fun is in the different experiences.

Also, living with a host family may not be for everyone, but if you are alone (and a woman, especially) it is a great source of warmth and safety.

I now speak passable Spanish and can make my way around without a dictionary. Having conversations with taxi drivers and market ladies has greatly enhanced the cultural experiences of my trips. I would highly recommend this way of learning for anyone who wants to try to learn a new language.

Following are my Amerispan experiences (as of November 2006); each was for three or four weeks.

• Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico — wonderful location and beautiful grounds. Classes of 10 to 12 members, most college-age American students. 2003, homestay. 2004, rented an apartment with a friend.

• Centro Lengues e Intercambio Cultural (CLIC), Seville, Spain — sterile building in the heart of the city. Six in the class, all in their 20s, mostly Europeans. 2003, homestay.

• Estudio Sampere, Cuena, Ecuador — old building in a colonial city. Four to five in the class. Many extra trips. 2004, sweet apartment about 15 minutes from school.

• Centro Pan Americano de Idiomas, Costa Rica — beautiful modern campuses (San Miguel for one week and Monteverde for two weeks). Two or three in each class. Excellent teachers. 2005, homestays.

• Ixbalanque Escuela de Español, Copan, Honduras — old, garage-like building (new school being built). Private lessons. Poor teachers and no other activities. 2005, homestay (would not recommend).

• Casa de Lenguas, Antigua, Guatemala — lovely setting. Private lessons. Excellent teachers. 2005, homestay. Mostly older populations.

Carolyn Taylor

Memphis, TN

I made my first trip to Europe during a college summer. At that time, I could speak both Spanish and French, but I was quite concerned about my lack of knowledge of German. A German-major friend told me, “No problem. I’ll teach you ‘Where is?’ and ‘How much?’ That’s all you need to know.”

On my return, I told her to add the following to her list of essential words: “Train station” (my means of travel), “Entrance/exit” and “Men/women.” After I was married, my husband added “Two beers, please” to the list.

We could not possibly have learned the language of every country we have visited since then, even at a level of very casual language, so on group tours we rely on the guide. And in the main tourist areas of Western Europe we have found it possible to get by with English almost everywhere. (The notable exception to this was Bastogne, Belgium. For a town with American war memorials and museums on almost every street, no one seems to remember his/her high school English. We ate at an excellent restaurant with menu “seulement en francais” [“only in French”].)

When we need to learn enough of a new language for survival on our own, we’ve found the very best way to accomplish this is to call the foreign student office of our local university and request a volunteer from that country. In return for dinner, we can get adequate instruction in some key phrases and some personal insights into life in their home country.

Our most successful use of this resource was when I picked up some Russian from a young woman who could speak at least six languages. She watched me write down her pronunciations phonetically and corrected me with comments like, “It’s a soft ‘d,’ like in Spanish.”

Another key tip for Russia is to learn the alphabet. Street names, store names and such become understandable when you learn how to substitute the characters.

We are about to take a trip to Japan, which we consider quite special, and we’d like to be able to meet people, so I tried the Rosetta Stone (St. Stephens House, Arthur Rd., Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 1RY, U.K.; phone +44 [0] 808 178 5192. . . or, in the U.S., 135 W. Market St., Harrisonburg, VA 22801; 800/788-0822 or visit www.rosettastone.com) course on CD. This is an immersion approach, listening to phrases accompanied by pictures.

I’ve concluded this might be a good method for someone who’s going to live in a foreign country and has a lot of time to devote to learning the language, but I’ve found it somewhat frustrating and not particularly oriented to the needs of a traveler. It’s also expensive: $200 for the course and a special computer headset.

Donna Pyle

Boulder, CO

The best, and definitely the most fun, way to learn a second language is to have a boyfriend/girlfriend who is a native speaker of that language.

Barbara Malley

New York, NY

My language learning experience stretches over the last two years. I have been working to learn conversational Spanish so I feel comfortable traveling through Latin American countries. Shown below is a list, in chronological order, of the various methods I have used. At the end is a summary of what I thought worked best for me.

1. Summer 2003 — “Living Language: Spanish Complete Course” (Random House Information Group. ISBN 0-609-60267-5 — out of print). This is a course book with three audio CDs and a Spanish/English pocket dictionary. I appreciate this series more now that I know some Spanish. You can read/hear words/phrases, and it does introduce all the grammar points though not with a lot of introduction. I bought the No. 1 Living Language set at Barnes & Noble for $30. It appears to be out of print now, but, looking on www.amazon.com, I found the newer version, “Complete Spanish 1: The Basics” by Living Language (Random House Information Group. ISBN 1400021324 — 3-CD set with coursebook and dictionary, $24.95).

2. Summer 2004 — “Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish” by Margarita Madrigal (1953, Doubleday & Co., and currently available in a 1989 version, Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 0385410956 — 496 pp., $12.95 paperback). This was my dad’s college textbook. It introduces all the grammar points with more (and sufficient) explanations and has lots of review exercises.

3. Summer 2004 — “Basic Conversational Spanish” by Gregory G. Lagrone (1957, Holt, Rinehart & Winston — out of print), another of my dad’s textbooks. I didn’t care for this book as much. There were fewer exercises and the grammar explanations were fewer. It did have sample dialogs at the beginning of each chapter, which was nice.

4. Summer 2004 — “Fundamentos de Español” by Manuel and Catherine Salas (1950, John C. Winston Co. — out of print). Also my dad’s, it’s similar to the Madrigal’s book although there are fewer exercises. It does include lots of “lectures” plus dialogs of a family’s experience traveling to Chile, which was nice.

5. Summer 2004 — “Spanish for Dummies” by Susana Wald and Juergen Lorenz (2000, John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0764551949 — 432-page book and CD, $24.99). I didn’t find this book useful at all. The CD contents are very minimal (in comparison to Living Language’s). More a “common phrases” type of book, it does not present much grammar at all.

6. January-March 2005 — Honduras. Several friends told me that learning a language through immersion is the best way. I agree with them. I attended the Central America Spanish School, or CASS (P.O. Box 1142, La Ceiba, Atlantida, Honduras, C.A.; phone [504] 440-1061, fax 440-1707 or visit www.ca-spanish.com), for 10 weeks. It cost $220 per week for one-on-one (teacher and me) instruction for 20 hours a week and full-board homestay with a host family. I chose CASS because they have several campuses throughout Honduras, so I could sightsee and still keep a consistent, continual progression of my classes.

I highly recommend staying with a host family, even though the initial weeks, with no common language, can be very hard. The benefits of talking with family members and just seeing how they live their daily lives are fantastic. I consider them all friends now.

After 10 weeks of CASS classes I was an intermediate-level student. Speaking and listening were my weaker skills, though.

7. Summer 2005 — From a local library, I checked out a workbook and set of cassette tapes on Spanish. There was not a lot of grammar, but I focused on listening to the conversations on tape to help train my ears.

8. Summer 2005 — I checked out a workbook and videotape on Spanish, again focusing on the listening.

9. Summer 2005 — I checked out the PC-based learning program “Learn Spanish Now!” from Transparent Language (12 Murphy Dr., Nashua, NH 03062; phone 603/262-6300, fax 6476 or visit www.transparent.com).

Although there was some grammar, it mostly focused on conversational aspects. What I liked most was listening to all the dialogues. I didn’t care for the games; they assumed you knew the dialogues exactly. Amazon.com is selling a couple of versions of this.

One thing to mention about this program is that they do have a way to analyze your speech (via microphone) and show you whether it is close to that of a native speaker. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get this feature to work, probably because I was using too old a version of “Learn Spanish Now!” on Windows XP.

10. December 2005-March 2006 — I went back to Honduras again but spent only three weeks at the CASS school. I was surprised at how much I remembered. I spent 10 weeks doing various volunteer work but didn’t have pleasant experiences — too much of the “mañana” culture, for me. I also found that my conversation skills were not good enough for everyday workers. I did travel throughout Honduras as a solo tourist (no English-speaking guides) and had few problems with my Spanish.

11. While in Honduras in 2006, I read the local newspapers as much as possible. I prefer La Prensa or El Tiempo, myself. They were useful in expanding my vocabulary and finding specific examples of grammar that I didn’t understand. During the summer, when I had time, I would read them online.

12. Summer 2006 — I decided to try finding some penpals. I found a few by going to www.parlo.com. Although we initially exchanged a lot of e-mails, the rate has slowly been going down (probably my fault).

This site also offers online courses, some of which are free. I took their free “Travel Spanish” course and found it okay. It is similar to the “Spanish for Dummies” book — not much grammar but more a collection of phrases to learn. Listening to the conversations is nice.

13. Summer 2006 — I know that listening is still my weakest skill. I don’t have access to broadcast radio stations, but I do listen to Spanish talk radio stations over the Internet at times. I find these useful even though I don’t understand enough of the conversations (too fast) to comprehend the fine points.

14. Over the last couple of years, I have found various online reference sites. For translation, I use three sites: http://babelfish.altavista.com, www.google.com/translate and www.freetranslation.com.

For Spanish-English dictionaries, I use www.spanishdict.com and http://wordreference.com. Both sites have audio snippets for common words, so you can hear the word besides knowing its translation. The nice thing about Wordreference.com is that the dictionary entries are tied into their forum boards, so you can see other people’s questions about particular words.

So that you better understand my choices above, first I’ll give some background.

I never took a foreign language in high school or university. It has been 20-plus years since I had any formal English grammar classes. While I have good hearing, I find it difficult to discriminate a conversation from the background noise. I am an engineer and like learning the grammar/facts about a language; I am not a conversationalist.

With a background like that, I firmly believe that learning through immersion is the way to go. It is hard at the beginning, but stick with it and it will come.

I am glad I had read, from my list, #2 (“Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish”) and #4 (“Fundamentos de Español”) ahead of time. These gave me some clues as to what the teachers later were trying to explain to me in Spanish. I think #1 (“Living Language: Spanish Complete Course”) is quite good as well, especially the pocket dictionary.

After my first round of Spanish immersion, I knew that conversation (especially listening) was and still is the key. I think audiotapes or CDs are useful, if for no other reason than to help train your ears. My problem is that many of them are still too fast; I like to know every word in the conversation. The nice thing about #9 (Transparent Languages “Learn Spanish Now!”) is they had a “slow mode” button which slowed the conversations down.

If you have friends who speak the language, fantastic! That is the best way to practice.

Now, my goal from the start was to learn intermediate-level Spanish in all forms, but what will I do when I start traveling through Asia? I realize I don’t have the time to learn each language. The best I can hope for is common words and phrases. I still want to know some of the languages’ grammar (being a logical person) but will focus on conversation skills.

I think I will use a book/CD with some grammar (like #1) and/or a computer-based program (like #9). I will also try to find workbook/tape or workbook/CD combos (like #7 and #8) so that I can tune my ear to the rhythm and sounds of the language.

If I will be in the country a long time, I will look for a school in that country with a crash, one-week “survival” language course.

Clint Kaul

Kalamazoo, MI

I speak three languages fluently: English, German and Spanish. I think the most efficient way to learn another language is to start young.

I learned German at the age of one. My parents spoke German at home and then enrolled me in language classes at a German language school in Manhattan for about two to three hours a week for eight years. Further, we spent many summers in Germany, which also helped because I was forced to use my language skills to communicate with my family.

I learned Spanish in high school but only became proficient when, at the age of 18, I decided to live in Mexico for two years. I wasn’t ready for college yet. First I worked in a restaurant in Mexico City, which helped me develop an ear for the language because that is all I heard. Once I became proficient enough, I accepted a promotion and worked as a hostess. Then I enrolled in language classes and the university and did extremely well.

I believe that once you have learned to speak a second language, a third is usually easy because you have the knowledge base to transfer the language skills you know from one to another.

Debra L. Rudolph

Queens, NY

The experience starts with the choice of language. Why not start with the easiest of them all? Everybody should start by learning Esperanto. It is estimated that it takes less time to learn Esperanto and then another language than to learn only the other language.

I was born in Argentina, and I cannot recommend the way I learned English, because it took me not just years but decades to get some fluency, especially for listening to English. I studied English since I was five years old, and during 20 years I got to understand almost all of what I read but nothing of what I heard. Then I started the “immersion” method, by moving to New York City in 1963 at age 25. It took me about six more years to learn to understand as I listened to English.

Learning English did become a little easier for me after I learned Esperanto, at age 22. Generally, the first-learned foreign language is the more difficult and the following ones are a little easier. That is a good reason to start with the easiest one, and there are two things relevant about Esperanto:

1. It is easy to learn, taking no more than 50 hours to be able to use the language, both written and spoken, and another 50 hours to get some fluency.

2. No matter how bad your accent is, everybody will understand you.

Here I am with Ms. Lina Chen at the Badalin site of the Great Wall of China. She learned Esperanto in college and today works as an announcer and translator (Chinese to Esperanto) for China Radio International (http://es.chinabroadcast.cn).

I have a whole life of experiences using Esperanto since I learned it more than 45 years ago.

In July-August ’04 I visited China to attend the 89th Esperanto World Convention. Of the 2,031 participants from 51 countries, half of them were Chinese. How well did I communicate?

There were some Chinese students who had learned Esperanto in only three months. It was rather difficult to communicate with them but not impossible. I could somehow communicate with half of them.

There were other students who had learned Esperanto over nine months. Generally, I had no problems in communicating with them.

With many of the rest, about 1,900 people, I kept talking as if we had known each other for a long time — all kinds of subjects, all kinds of emotions. I was even invited to have dinner at the houses of several people in Beijing.

Having a local person walking you around town who is not interested in your money is a fantastic experience. A few years before, I enjoyed the same in Seoul, Korea, and Tokyo, Japan, with Esperanto-speaking locals.

What is the best way to learn Esperanto?

Most of the Esperanto speakers in my generation learned it alone, from a single book. I did that. There are always courses all over, but they’re not always held nearby. Today most people learn it from the Internet, which is an immense source of learning materials: books, songs, videos…. Just Google the word “Esperanto.”

The biggest site at which to learn it is www.lernu.net. There are instructions in a choice of more than 20 languages; just select English. You can also download an interactive program from www.cursodeesperanto.com.br. (If you cannot download it, I can e-mail it to you; it’s a 13mb file.)

There are a few books for learning Esperanto. They can be ordered from the Esperanto League for North America, or ELNA (Box 1129, El Cerrito, CA 94530; phone 510/653-0998, fax 1468 or visit http://esperanto-usa.org). Also visit the virtual bookstore online at https://esperantousa.hypermart.net; select “Learning materials” and “English.”

The book “Esperanto — Learning and Using the International Language” by David Richardson (third edition, 2004, Esperanto League for North America. ISBN 0939785064 — 368 pp., $15) contains chapters on the world language problem plus the history of the Esperanto movement and its current status, 10 chapters devoted to learning Esperanto, and ample reading material to improve your comprehension. The excellent index makes research easy, and the Esperanto-to-English dictionary makes this self-contained book the best for English speakers.

For those willing to invest more money, for about $110 you can purchase through ELNA (see above) four Esperanto DVDs with eight hours of video plus two CDs with exercises. For the first few parts, you can select subtitles in several languages or no subtitles at all.

Of course, you could always try immersion. After finishing the basic course, start a trip through Europe, Asia or even Africa. Esperanto speakers from many countries will welcome you in their houses. Visit www. tejo.org/ps/ps_lingv/ps_en.htm or www.esperanto.org/tejo/la/amanda.

If you have any questions about Esperanto, please e-mail me at enrike@aol.com and I will be happy to answer them.

Enrique Ellemberg

Fremont, CA

By far, the easiest way to learn a language is to learn Esperanto.

It was created precisely with ease of learning in mind, and a further advantage is that it levels the playing field. Like shaking hands, everyone makes the same (small) effort.

In addition, it helps in the learning of other languages — a very important point because Esperanto is not intended to replace other languages but to serve as the international language for and between everyone. If one has particular affinities with any given country, one should, of course, also learn that language, which brings us back to the original topic.

Personally, having learned and taught three languages (French, German and Esperanto) beyond my mother tongue (English), I am convinced that the only way to really learn a language is to live and work in the country where it is spoken. With any other method, the progress is so slow that frustration sets in, often resulting in one’s simply giving up.

Of course, that does not hold for Esperanto because it can be learned easily anywhere and Esperanto speakers can be found in virtually every country.

Cabinet Bartsch

Lalley, France

In my case, learning languages was not related to any tech gadget. It was a matter of being prepared to acquire new languages. And I got this as a side effect of learning Esperanto in 1988 when I was an 18-year-old freshman in São Paulo State University at Campinas, my home city.

I didn’t have any special attraction for languages, but since then, because of the relative easiness of learning that 120-year-old planned language, I have gotten more and more involved in the acquisition of languages.

In the university itself, after a few months I started to look for other languages, and there I learnt French, German and Russian. I had the opportunity to employ those languages in their original countries, and there I saw that my language skills were due to my fluency in Esperanto.

For my career I have traveled to 18 countries on three continents, and in each place I contacted local organizations of Esperanto-speakers. The contact with those folks gave me a much deeper impression of local culture and people than I had with knowing just the other languages.

Learn its worth. I would like to recommend this “tool.” Please pay a visit to www.esperanto.net or, for instance, www.lernu.net.

James Rezende Piton

Campinas-SP, Brazil

Our experiences learning Spanish began with a tutor (twice a week for 10 weeks) followed by a week’s immersion class in Costa Rica, in 2004. My husband, John, and I spent the winter in Costa Rica, staying in various places, and used what we had learned as much as possible.

In Costa Rica, we opted for the classes in Playa Dominical arranged by Adventure Education Center (13070 Beckwith, Ste. B, Sonora, CA 95370; 800/237-2730 or 209/588-1805, www.adventurespanishschool.com), at $315 a week without homestay.

All of the students for that week (about eight of us) were interviewed on the first morning and put into the appropriate classes. Our class consisted of three: a young woman from Austria who spoke several languages and us. We heard and used only Spanish for the entire five hours. For us, in our mid-60s then, it was tiring — but we learned.

We were given an apartment with a kitchen to use instead of living in a cabin at the school. We walked to and from school, and our day began with a breakfast served at 8:00 and later a break with cookies or sweets served, with class ending at 1 p.m.

There was plenty of drinking water available, and all of the students could use the common kitchen for making dinner, although most ate out. A few students had paid for lunches to be provided.

The school had activities planned in the afternoons as well. These involved a trip to a bird sanctuary and an outing to a butterfly farm and a beach down the coast.

Adventure Education Center has various programs available in Turrialba, Arenal and Playa Dominical. They offer week-long or longer classes for children, teens, medical personnel, etc., and all seem reasonable in price.

At home, as winter approaches and we get ready to head off again to a Spanish-speaking country, we rely on a book called “501 Spanish Verbs” by Christopher and Theodore Kendris (sixth edition, 2007, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. ISBN 0764179845 — $16.99 book and CD-ROM) as well as flash cards for learning verbs and vocabulary, tapes and books (Living Language) and various books picked up at library used-book sales.

¡Hasta luego!

Nancy Ostheimer

Fort Collins, CO

My husband, Peter, and I both highly recommend Rosetta Stone (see address above, pg. 46) software. They offer some 20 languages, and you interact with your computer screen to learn, first, words, then phrases and sentences.

Rosetta Stone differs from all other language software we’ve seen because it is engrossing and fun to use. The time flies. You can even speak into a microphone and have your pronunciation graded on a meter. This is effective in improving your accent.

So far, we have used Rosetta Stone for Italian and Spanish, in the year preceding each trip to Europe, and were very pleased with how much we learned.

All of this is available to see and preview at www.rosettastone.com. The average CD package is around $190 for some 200 hours of lessons.

Linda Beuret

Santa Barbara, CA

I learned French by having a French boyfriend in my younger days.

I should have learned Italian instead.

Chandra Huang

Honolulu, HI